Artist as Antennae: On Kubla Khan and the Breathing, Heartbeating Earth

In the fall of 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famed English poet, fell ill in some unspecified way while out walking and when he returned to the farmhouse he was staying in he took some opium to quell the pain. While opium conjures a particularly exotic and hazy kind of stumbling degeneration to the modern ear, the truth is that it was the Advil of the time. Advil in the sense of being widely available and commonly used even if opiatic visions or phantasms came through too. That said,  that though common, it wasn’t a mild thing and Coleridge was known to be addicted. Coleridge called it “an anodyne prescribed in consequence of a slight disposition.” He laid down with a book and tumbled into, as he wrote afterwards, “a sort of Reverie.”

Coleridge writes that while he slept, he had a grand opium induced vision and composed simultaneously—while sleeping—some two or three hundred lines of poetry. Is dreaming in composed verse composition?

As the famous story goes Coleridge woke after a few hours and began writing down the first famous three stanzas of his swirled and dreamt verse until he was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” who broke the flow of transcription and the visioned rhyme melted back into the mystery from which it came. Nobody knows if this person from Porlock was or is or what he wanted or even if it was real but Colerigde cobbled together the rest of the famed poem. Though Coleridge somehow, ruefully, considered it an incomplete poem because its source material vanished. Many would argue with that.  But Coleridge didn’t even publish the poem until nearly 20 years later such was his lament over it.

The book Coleridge took before his sleep and dream was written in 1625 by the Renaissance historian Samuel Purchas. Coleridge wrote: ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall’. What Purchas actually wrote was closer to the poem: ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteene Miles of Plaine ground with a wall …’


Here is the beginning of the poem:


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in his Introduction to the Second Edition of Understanding Media: “The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist ‘the antennae of the race’.

1797 was an interesting year in England. The Industrial Revolution was about 15 years old and part of what made the Industrial Revolution possible was technically and dramatically to make the world not alive anymore. Forests had to be potential timber. Mountains had to be quarries. Land had to be farmland. Places became “nowhere” in this model because “nobody would mind” if the core materials for production were plucked from their place.

And yet here is Coleridge, and artist to be sure, in his verse saying the earth was breathing in fast and thick panting. This line about breath, in an almost breathlessly careening poem, might just be pulse of signal to the antennae that the earth might well be very much alive just as a kind of forgetting of that fact was becoming more and more ensconced.

So it is remarkable to me that that almost 225 years later McLuhan and Pound may have proven correct. It seems as if the Earth has a kind of breath or a pulse that has now been precisely measured by science.  As a new study of ancient geological events suggests that our planet has a slow, steady ‘heartbeat’ of geological activity of every 27 million years or so.

This pulse of clustered geological events – including volcanic activity, mass extinctions, plate reorganizations and sea level rises – is incredibly slow, a 27.5-million-year cycle of catastrophic ebbs and flows. But luckily for us, the research team notes we have another 20 million years before the next ‘pulse’.

Michael Rampino, the lead author said “Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time, but our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random.”

Though the actual base causes are speculations still – ranging from comets to plate tectonics to the moon’s gravitational pull – there is is this notion that the earth seems to have this fundamental sign of life. Local life on the surface? Sure. We’ve always known that. But even the famous Gaia Hypothesis formed in the 1970’s by James Lovelock didn’t make the case that the Earth itself was alive.

What to make of this? That some artists may well be following, unawares, the function described by McLuhan and Pound. That is a thing to know. Maybe Coleridge was one of them for that one line of poetry. I’m not prone to making universal statements and I’m not making one now but if the earth is indeed breathing or heartbeating somehow, in a way that is far from human but very much in the fundaments of the making of humans, then how one proceeds on, and in, and of, a living earth might matter.

While my fingers are crossed that this little venture is doing a decent job of remembering and proceeding as if its very substance is born of a living earth such a remembering couldn’t be sustained alone. So I pray that you also might take up such attempts at remembering in your corner of the world.

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